With Voucher Impasse, Ohio Legislature Abrogates It’s Constitutional Responsibility for Our Public Schools

Ohio’s House and Senate are stuck. They even seem to have stopped arguing about their two different plans to end a public school crisis caused by the surreptitious expansion last summer (in the conference committee on the state budget) of the EdChoice school voucher program. On February 1st, students were due to have begun registering for a whole new round of vouchers for next year, with eligibility expanded to a whole new group of students, but in late January the Senate created one plan to reshape the program and the House designed another plan. The Legislature gave itself two months—until April 1— to work out the differences. But here we are in mid-March without any progress toward a compromise.  And neither plan would really do what is necessary to support the school districts the state legislature has trapped in this crisis.

When Ohio state senators describe the problem, they seem to forget about the 1,660,354 students enrolled in the state’s public schools. The senators’ comments betray their sympathy with parents who would like an EdChoice voucher to pay for tuition at a private or religious school.  “Why should these parents have to wait until the first of April to begin applying?” ask the state senators. “Why should they be left without being able to make plans?”  Ohio’s state senators justify their support of vouchers with a “money should follow the child” theory consistent with Betsy DeVos’s contention that we need to worry about each child and each family and cease focusing on the system.

Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University school finance expert, explains the central flaw in this sort of thinking: “The ‘money belongs to the child’ claim… falsely assumes that the only expenses associated with each individual’s education choice are the current annual expenses of educating that individual…. It ignores entirely marginal costs and economies of scale, foundational elements of origins of public institutions.  We collect tax dollars and provide public goods and services because it allows us to do so at an efficient scale of operations. The tax dollars collected belong to (are governed or controlled by) the democratically governed community (local, state, federal) that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars, which are to be distributed according to the… preferred goods and services… of that community within the constraints of the law.  Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now.  Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt… do not belong exclusively to those parents.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, p. 30)

Maybe it is easier for the members of Ohio’s legislature not to worry so much about the current crisis across the state’s school districts because In Ohio, the EdChoice voucher program at the center of the massive voucher mess is not funded directly by the state. Conveniently the Legislature created a school district deduction, and school districts, which have already watched money flow out of their schools this year are faced with catastrophic local budget losses if the program expands on April 1.  If the Legislature does nothing, the EdChoice vouchers will multiply in a way that will deplete the local budgets of two-thirds of Ohio’s 610 school districts. Inequity will also become a more serious problem, because the districts hurt the worst are the ones that serve many of the state’s poorest children.

Bruce Baker is a national school finance expert.  Howard Fleeter, a respected Columbus school funding expert who leads the Ohio Education Policy Institute, is extremely concerned about the implications of vouchers in our state.  In January, Fleeter reviewed changes in the EdChoice voucher program and wrote the clearest explanation I’ve read of a very confusing set of issues.  Fleeter writes On the Money, a regular (but paywalled) report for the Columbus Hannah News Service. Recently the Delphos School District reposted Fleeter’s January report on the potential implications of the EdChoice voucher expansion where we can all read it. While Fleeter’s report is now two months old, not a thing has changed as the Ohio Legislature argues, dithers, and delays, despite ten long formal hearings where legislators heard testimony from 400 concerned citizens.

The EdChoice program has grown rapidly—from 3,100 students in 2006 to nearly 30,000 this school year.  Fleeter explains that the EdChoice voucher program counts voucher students as though they are enrolled in their assigned local neighborhood school. Then, the full voucher amount ($4,650 for each student in grades K-8 and $6,000 for each high school student) is deducted from the state aid that the district is slated to receive and turned into a voucher to pay private school tuition: “The deduction funding method has engendered frequent complaints… because the state aid received by the district as a result of including a voucher student is typically less than the amount that is deducted.”  Fleeter adds that during this school year, the deduction method of funding EdChoice vouchers has become particularly threatening for school districts under the biennial budget passed last summer because the budget froze state aid for schools at last year’s amount:  “As a result, any increase in the number of voucher students in FY20 or FY21 as compared to FY 19 means that the district will simply lose the entire additional voucher deduction amount. Thus, school districts that experience an increase in voucher use by resident students in FY 20 are not really guaranteed FY19 funding levels as HB166 (the budget bill) intended.”

Fleeter identifies two additional problems that have driven the catastrophic voucher crisis across Ohio’s school districts this winter.

EdChoice vouchers were supposedly created to give students an escape if they attend a so-called “failing” school.  The first problem with the EdChoice vouchers is that the Legislature has changed the criteria for designating an underperforming school. To qualify for an EdChoice voucher, a student must live in the attendance zone of a school deemed “underperforming” by the state. That number has rapidly grown from 255 schools last school year, to 517 this school year. Next year, if the Legislature does nothing by April 1, 2020, over 1,200 buildings will be EdChoice Designated Schools.

Fleeter explains that all this is based on having just one “failing” state report card grade during a three year period in any of a number of state report card rating categories.  The state report card ratings are based on convoluted algorithms and their validity questionable.  Here are the ratings that determine EdChoice designation—a D or F grade Overall—an F in Value-Added—a Performance Index in the bottom 10 percent of buildings—a four-year graduation rate of D or F—a K-3 Literacy Grade of D or F—or the building is under an Academic Distress Commission.  “(A) building is now EdChoice eligible if it meets any one of the above listed criteria… (T)he inclusion of the K-3 Literacy criteria is… problematic because this measure is widely considered to be seriously flawed.”   And the state has complicated the qualification criteria further by leaving out data from school years 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17, because a new standardized test had been introduced.  This year schools are being judged on grades the state awarded in the 2013-14, 2017-18, and 2018-19 school years.  Fleeter argues: “The use of data that is 6 years out-of-date is by itself inappropriate…. (It) also means that any improvement shown by districts as they adjusted to the new assessments is also not considered.”

Second, the budget passed last summer radically expanded the number of students eligible to qualify for a voucher. Fleeter explains that before this school year, “(T)he EdChoice voucher program has required that in order to qualify for a voucher the student must have attended an EdChoice eligible public school in the preceding year… (T)he only exception… has been for Kindergarten students for whom Kindergarten is (obviously) their first year in school… However, beginning (this school year), high school students who have never attended a public school are now eligible to receive a voucher to attend a private high school.” In one school year, the number of applications by high school students for an EdChoice Voucher has grown by 75 percent. “Not only has the elimination of the requirement that high school students had to have been in a qualifying public school in the prior year resulted in an increase in EdChoice vouchers, it is providing these vouchers to families who already have their children in private schools… This is not expansion of educational choice to those without the means to exercise it themselves; it is merely a handout to families who have already shown they can do it themselves.” (emphasis in the original)

Fleeter summarizes: “Due to ill-considered changes to the criteria for designating schools as ‘underperforming,’ an unprecedented change in the eligibility criteria for private high school students that undermines the only defensible argument of the EdChoice program itself, and an apparent failure to understand the impact of freezing the school funding formula in the current biennium, Ohio policymakers have created a situation where two thirds of the state’s districts and schools… stand to be EdChoice eligible… (next school year) and the districts themselves—rather than the state—will be left paying for these modifications.”

Fleeter grew up in the same school district where I currently live and where my children were educated—the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools— an inner-ring suburban school district in Cleveland.  In the report, Fleeter cites the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Schools as an example of the EdChoice Voucher crisis this year: “The total number of voucher applications in Cleveland Heights increased from 890 in FY 19 (last school year) to 1414 in FY 20 (this school year). Sixty-five percent of these applications were high school students.  However, virtually all of these students (both K-8 and high school) attend… religiously affiliated schools…. Very few—if any—of these students have ever attended one of the public schools in this school district….”

Next Tuesday, in the March 17, Ohio primary election, the citizens of Cleveland Heights and University Heights will vote on a local school levy.  In January at a public meeting, members of the school board explained the necessity of putting a local property tax levy on the ballot at this time: “The CH-UH City School District will ask the community for a new 7.9 mill operating levy in March. The current funding issues with EdChoice are the major reason for this millage. In fact, the District would not need to ask for a levy until 2023 if it weren’t for the way EdChoice was funded, and the millage would be significantly less.”

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights school levy is on the ballot to pay for vouchers for a few and to try to protect services for the many—the 5,136 students enrolled in our community’s public schools. The levy committee’s literature explains that if the levy fails, the “Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools will be forced to make drastic cuts to offset lost state funding, which could include: closing school buildings, increasing student/teacher ratio, decreasing 1-on-1 instruction, canceling proven programs, and limiting sports, arts, music and transportation. These cuts will hurt every student in every classroom.”